Digital Archiving

Nothing lasts forever. Digital archives can disappear in an instant. Hard drives are merely appliances. Like toasters, they fail. When smartphones and laptops are stolen, when online services shut down, and when natural disasters strike. To safeguard files adequately, we should have more than one copy, stored in more than one way, in more than one place. 

The chosen file type is an important first consideration when backing up archives of your photos. The table below compares common file formats:

Archival File Format Size Quality Software Compatibility
JPEGSmallest LowestExcellent
TIFF (8 bit)MediumMediumExcellent
TIFF (16 bit)LargestHighExcellent
RAW files: CR2, NEFLargeHighestGood now;
Questionable years later
DNGLargeHighestModerate now;
Excellent years later

Digital storage formats change all the time. Files might be safe but I won’t know unless I buy something that can read them. Operating systems, software and file formats also keep changing, so being able to see a file doesn’t mean you can load it. Happily, the standard .jpg picture file format developed by the Joint Photographic Experts Group may well last “forever” despite efforts to replace it with others. 

Making digital documents last forever therefore involves two processes. First, you have to keep moving the data to new storage systems before the old one fails or becomes unreadable. Second, you may have to keep converting documents to whichever file format becomes dominant before the old one is abandoned. 

Automatically uploading computer files to the cloud is the newest way to store photos and important documents, and it is a convenient way to create backups. Popular cloud services like Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Apple iCloud can be integrated into almost any device and computer. Many include a certain amount of free storage space, and you can pay for more storage if needed. 

Online backup services like Carbonite are convenient ways to continually back up all your files to online storage. These services charge a monthly or annual fee but are convenient in the long term. They also automatically make updates to any files that you change, and most store files even after you delete (accidentally or on purpose) them from your computer. Pricing structures for business class storage are generally $1/per GB per year. 

When using cloud storage, consider digital escrow. Think about your family should anything happen to you. They may want to access your photographs after you die, so figure out a way to tell them where you store files and how to access them, ideally the username and password for the pw manager. 

If I save files to an external hard drive. Two copies, so I should be covered, right? Unfortunately, no. We had one external hard drive that slipped through my fingers to crash on the floor damaging the seek arm. The hard drive skipped, scratching the internal platter disk. The files are damaged and inaccessible. 

Keep as many copies as you have the time, budget and patience to maintain. Even with redundancy, systems fail, and when they do, the results can be catastrophic. 

It brings me peace of mind to know my files will live on somewhere, no matter what happens in my house, my office, or my virtual life. 

You want backup to come in a variety of methods and versions to maximize redundancy. The quickest way is anything automatic, something you can set for your computer or other image storage device to do without your command. After that, you want to cycle backups, so you can always access an older version if not the most recent. 

Let’s play another scenario. In the case of a flood, tornado, earthquake, hurricane or fire, you might not be around to grab the computer and backups and carry them to safety. If all of your backups live in the same place as your primary image storage device, you’ve lost it all. 

How To Implement a Good Backup Plan 

You’ll find plenty of advice out there about how to save your digital files, and this will be one more process. The point is that you need to do SOMETHING. Doing nothing is a guarantee that someday, you’ll lose something that will cause you pain.

  • Real time – images reside on your computer 
  • Daily or real time – automatic backup to the cloud 
  • Weekly – automatic or manual to an external drive 
  • Monthly – automatic or manual to a second external drive 
  • On demand – to all three backup locations when you upload a lot of new shots or videos, or invest a lot of time in your creative post-production work 
  • Keep the monthly external drive offsite, in a secure location like a bank safe deposit box, or in a fireproof, waterproof safe 

Want even better protection when working on an important project? Cycle external drives on a daily basis to avoid losing time invested in your post-production work. 

Don’t know where to begin? Consider the following process something you can use for any file you’ve created, including images, videos, documents, and databases. I don’t include programs in this list because you own the software, and their manufacturers will usually replace them as long as you own a license. 

Step 1 – Decide on a file naming system 

There is no one best way to file your photos and videos, other than a way that makes sense in the way your brain works. I recommend using the folders capability in the file management area of your computer, either under photos or in a blended area of documents and all other files. 

Vacations can be easy, since you use a simple label like “YEAR Place”. For example, you could label the folder “2016 Disney World” and download all images and videos from that trip into that folder. Events are similarly easy, such as “Tim HS Graduation 2018”. 

For the daily images of life, I use a folder with the name and year of my home city. My camera keeps the date of the images, and they automatically download in a subfolder labeled with that date. 

Step 2 – Put your image and video files in one place 

This is perhaps the most painful part of the process in the beginning. If you have photos on your smartphone, more on an old computer, and still more on your current one, you need to get them together in one place. Bite the bullet and do it once, and if you keep your system maintained, you’ll never have to do it again. 

BEFORE you pull old files or phone files into your main system, do a little clean-up. Delete multiple copies if you can clearly tell some are out of focus. Delete the ones that don’t matter, too, because storage comes with a cost. 


Most phone system providers offer automatic cloud backup. What can be uploaded can also be downloaded, often via a web application. You can download any photos and videos you’ve saved to your phone into your current computer. 

It’s important to note that you’ll have all images there, even after you’ve deleted them from your smartphone. Your cloud storage doesn’t recognize that they aren’t on your phone any longer, so you’ll want to be selective about what you download. You can also delete what’s in the cloud if you, like me, take multiple shots of the same thing to make sure one of them turns out. 

Old computers 

You can transfer images and videos from your old computer to your new one via a cloud system, an external hard drive, or a cable. After you’ve reviewed the old files and deleted what you don’t need to save, make sure you’ve named the folders according to the method you’ve selected. 

Dumping disorganized files into your main computer is like dumping unsorted paper files into a cabinet without putting them in some kind of order. 

For cloud systems, download the cleaned folders into your current computer. (Only do this if you’re not over-writing the same files that are already there, but which you might have changed.) For external drives, the same applies. 

Cable transfers are computer system dependent and involve functions of software within both systems. Refer to your computer operating system software manufacturer’s instructions on how to transfer via cable. But clean up those old files first. 

Old Storage Mechanisms 

We’ve saved images across any number of means over the years, including floppy disks (remember those?) and thumb drives. Before you upload any of these files, check the source (disk or drive) for viruses. Technology has advanced over the past years and what might not have been identified as a problem before could infect your current system if you don’t check it first. 

Recognize as well that older storage mechanisms are not as reliable as our current methods. Magnetic sectors fail, and the way we’ve handled the disk or drive over time also can cause problems. I advise people to scan the files one by one before uploading them, to make sure they are still viable, usable files (plus, don’t move something you don’t care about). 

Step 3 – Write a backup plan 

Your backup plan has three components – the files you’re backing up, the method you’re backing up to, and the frequency of those backups. Any new or changed file needs to be backed up, which means if you edit a file, you should give it a new name. (Most of us do this in image post-production, labeling the changes to the file and the new date in a new file name.) 

As to method, use at least two, but the more, the better. Cycle them, so you’re not backing up to the same drive again and again. An external drive wears out a re-used byte like the spot on your sock that rubs your shoe all the time and turns into a hole. 

As for frequency, think about how much time it would take to re-do any work you’ve done on the file. If you’re editing images in post-production, it would be wise to back up those files as soon as you finish with them for the day. If you’re religious about renaming them, you can identify them as new files with ease. 

Step 4 – Develop tactics for field storage 

Include in your backup strategy what you do with image files when you’re in the field, and as soon as you return to your office or home. The plan at a minimum is to find a way to keep a second copy someplace, not long after you take the shot. Consider emailing them to yourself or sharing them privately to yourself on social media if you can’t come up with a better choice. 

Carrying an external drive, whether a hard drive or a solid state, is not always possible or practical. If your volume of work requires that you do so, plan to have a drive rated highly for its ruggedness and durability. In a pinch, you can use a thumb drive, as long as you understand they could fail. 

Whenever you back up the photos and videos, do not erase them from their original location. If something fails in that back up, you’ve lost your work. That’s why carrying additional storage cards makes sense, giving you something closer to infinite capacity. 

Step 5 – Implement your backup plan 

Honestly, this is where most of us get off track. We create a great plan, and we might stick with it for a while, but then we get busy and set it as a lower priority. Remember my horror story – be religious about backups. 

Your Options for Online & Offline Image Storage 

The best backup systems are the ones YOU WILL USE. This is a case where brand matters less than features, and it’s sometimes hard to differentiate the best of the best, because they’re all good. I’m listing options in each category, along with what you should ask yourself before you buy. 


Online (through the internet or web) cloud-based storage system can be programmed to run at a set time, so your internet bandwidth isn’t busy when you need it for other things. If you set that time for overnight, make sure you keep your computer turned on and not asleep, because a sleeping computer does not back up. Don’t let your account payment lapse, because your files will disappear with no way to get them back. 

The following online cloud-based backup services are designed for home based or small businesses, those with a small number of computers without file servers. They work equally well for the photo enthusiast and prosumer; larger companies should consult their computing services expert. 

Here are some of the best online cloud-based storage options available, along with the reasons why reviewers like them.

Flickr offers a terabyte of free photo storage space, with adverts, though it is not as attractive as it used to be. Amazon offers unlimited photo storage for Prime members. SmugMug is a good alternative and provides unlimited storage for $47.88 a year, after a 14-day free trial period. Microsoft offers storage with Office 365’s OneDrive. Free accounts include 5GB. Paid accounts range from $4/month for custom domain email, up to $8 to include software installs, and bolt on items like advanced threat protection.

Consider what the next step may be for your photos. Wall canvas art? Calendar? Collage? Walgreens offers weekly coupons found at  Local shops like Bedford have similar offerings. Mobile platforms can experience odd tinting when printing at Walgreens. Instead, try

Carbonite could be considered the granddaddy of cloud based backup services, having been around for over a dozen years. The most affordable plan is $6/month for unlimited capacity on one computer. Business class HIPPA and SOX compliant storage runs $1/per GB annually. Users like the ability to use any filetype, the flexibility to add more computers, external drives and features to your coverage. Sign-up using CCSI’s affiliate link here:

Other features users favor include 90-day versioning and a courier recovery service if you suffer a major loss (like a flood or earthquake wiping out your systems altogether).

Since backup happens over the internet, your connection speed determines how long things will take. The first time you back up, be prepared to tie up your bandwidth. Once you have your first backup completed, only new or changed files are automatically sent across, limiting your disturbance. For additional info on Carbonite setup view our previous blog posting here:

Keep in mind, free and inexpensive services often come at the expense of subjecting files to dual copyright. Read the fine print if this matters to you.

Optical disks (CD/DVDs) for archival storage but these are no longer recommended (not just by me, but by most institutions). Keep in mind that backup and archiving isn’t permanent with digital media, you’re not storing the photos on a single medium for 50 years. So the longevity of the storage medium isn’t relevant to this discussion. Digital storage needs to be refreshed on a regular basis. For me that’s about a 10 to 15 year cycle. Back in the 1980s/90s it was tape backup, then in the 1990s/early2000s it was CD/DVS, now it’s hard drives. Next it will be SSD drives (when capacity/price come down to the same as HDDs and quality/longevity of these are better known). 

Ideally when looking at hard drives, you want to start with one that has the capacity of at least double the amount of data you wish to backup. I started with 2 Tb HDs a decade ago then moved to 4 Tb. You can do the calculation based on the amount of data you wish to backup.